Tech Throwdown

Nov. 8, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

It would be easy to judge this as heresy, but when I suggest that recent meetings of Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech have been a bit like the Frazier-Ali trilogy of the early 1970s, it’s meant to honor the utter investment both teams seem to make when taking on the other.

No words can capture the complete essence of Frazier-Ali.

In truth, there may never be anything athletic as wholly captivating as the three-pack of boxing matches between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the 1970s. That may be the gold standard of athletic competition, of men summoning more than anyone might expect them to have.

Ali won two of those fights, Frazier one. In the first and third, the world heavyweight title was on the line. The winner of the second would earn a shot at the belt.

That’s not unlike the Tech-Tech rivalry, especially since Paul Johnson became head coach of the Yellow Jackets before the 2008 season. The Hokies have won twice, the Jackets once. Each time, the winner went on to win the ACC’s Coastal division, and then the conference title.

“Since I’ve been here, this game has been a big, big game every year,” Johnson said. “This game has been a big part of the division race. Again this year, if we lose we’re out of the race, so to speak, so it’s a big game for us.”

In ’08, the Jackets were big underdogs in Blacksburg, Va., yet gave the Hokies hell for three hours as famed VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster went bananas trying to scheme against Johnson’s fangled option offense.

Georgia Tech outgained the defending ACC champions 387 yards to 247, and when Josh Nesbitt scored on an 18-yard run with 9:28 to tie the game (with the help of a two-point conversion), an upstart was banging its way into the conference consciousness.

The Hokies held on, winning on a field goal with 4:37 left in the game, winning, really, only because Georgia Tech turned the ball over three times as the home team never coughed it up. The Jackets nonetheless made it clear that they were going to be a pain in the ACC’s butt.

A year later, VT was the No. 4 team in the land upon visiting The Flats, but in a rousing Saturday night game in Bobby Dodd Stadium the Jackets – ranked No. 19 themselves – pulled out a 28-23 win that may not have been that close.

Foster looked as if he might expire. The Jackets completed just one pass, yet rushed for 309 yards. Nesbitt went for 122 and three touchdowns by himself.

Last season, when the Jackets probably had no business competing with the Hokies after Nesbitt broke his arm late in the first half in Blacksburg, Tevin Washington rallied the visitors to tie in another nationally-televised contest, this on a Thursday night.

For the third year in a row, the Jackets ran Foster crazy, rushing for 346 yards while out-gaining the Hokies 426-335. The Jackets, in fact, led 14-0 after Nesbitt’s 71-yard gallop – his second TD of the game.

There were plenty of big plays in that one, including Roddy Jones’ 5-yard run on a late fourth-and-4, and then Orwin Smith’s 9-yard run to tie it with 2:34 left.

No play was bigger, though, than David Wilson’s 90-yard kickoff return before Smith had even caught his breath. That moved the Hokies up 28-21.

Even then, Georgia Tech wouldn’t go away. Lane Stadium was rocking, yet Washington drove the Jackets to the Virginia Tech 17-yard-line before an interception in the end zone with eight seconds left sealed the deal.

“It’s always a tough game when we play VT,” said junior guard Omoregie Uzzi. “This will be one of the biggest games of my life.”

So now Georgia Tech (7-2, 4-2 ACC) is ranked No. 20, and Virginia Tech (8-1, 4-1) is No. 10.

This is not Frazier-Ali, but nobody should be surprised if the intensity of Thursday night’s game rivals that of championship matches.

Joe Frazier was one of my earliest favorite athletes.

Honestly, I latched onto him both because at the time – when as a 7- and 8-year-old I was beginning to pick favorites in everything – he was the world heavyweight champion (at about 205 pounds, which BTW is Washington’s listed weight), and because he was not Ali.

I didn’t care for Ali, or any hyper-confident athletes. My best friend was a Jerry Quarry fan, but even then I could see that Quarry had no shot. My interest in Frazier, after all, prompted me to check out how-to-box books from the library. I quickly made myself an expert (hah).

Joe was an underdog on multiple levels. He was smallish. His style was utterly inelegant. He was perceived by many to be an interloper in a kingdom of others in the waning years of an era when a handful in boxing’s upper crust were considered athletic royalty. Joe ran a jackhammer among bluebloods.

Upon learning that Frazier had beaten Ali in 1971, my week was made. I asked, and my father gave me the news at breakfast. Later, I saw a write-up in The Columbus Dispatch. Remember, TV replays were few and far between and other than sluggish newspaper and magazine accounts, word-of-mouth was king.

Both men spent time in the hospital after that one.

Consequently, I was crushed when Ali beat Frazier twice the next four-plus years (and mortified when George Foreman destroyed Joe in the interim).

It was so annoying to read and even see on ABC’s Wide World of Sports the way Ali toyed publicly with Frazier, and I loathed Howard Cosell’s role in that; he gave Ali too big a platform. The man made a sword out of a microphone, and a sledge out of cameras.

When given chances, Frazier wasn’t nearly eloquent enough to blunt the blade nor slow the anvil. Frustration was evident on Joe’s face, even to a kid. That made me mad.

Today, one day after the passing of one of my very first heroes, I can’t shake Frazier’s Miller Lite beer commercial from my mind.

Neither can I cut loose of the notion that without Frazier – who nearly beat Ali to a pulp in their third fight only to find himself beaten just as badly – was no less responsible for making Ali than Ali himself.

I haven’t looked it up to be certain of the exact phrasing, but Ali said something like, “It was the closest thing to dying,” after the “Thrilla in Manilla.”

Replays were more readily available by 1975. It’s hard nowadays to believe that boxing was once taken seriously, but upon watching that one again it’s not so difficult any more. Those two men threw everything at each as if their lives were hanging in the balance. Unreal.

It ended when Frazier’s corner man, Eddie Futch, wouldn’t let his boxer go out for the 15th and final round. Legend is fuzzy on some details, but it has been told that Ali had told corner man, Angelo Dundee, to cut his gloves off as well.

“Frazier quit just before I did,” Ali said. “I didn’t think I could fight any more. Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me.”

Sorry for the loose parallels today. Smokin’ Joe’s on my brain.

I’m betting the Jackets and Hokies are going to go at it Thursday. Frank Sinatra won’t be ring-side snapping pictures, nor will anybody fail to answer a bell. Like a couple of bull-headed boxers, though, the Techs seem certain to elevate each through their exchange of competitive nature.

“When you run out and the stadium is packed and the crowd is into it, you can kind of feel the atmosphere and when things started going well and the fans got behind them, I think you feed off that,” Johnson said. “It’s fun to be out there when that’s going on.”

Hey, I know some of this is a stretch, but . . . send your comments to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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